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Has A Glass Bottle Caused An Entire Building To Burn in Milan?

A burning lens is studied as a potential explanation

Story Highlights
  • The building turned into a torch in few minutes
  • Experts still don't know how it started and study the possibility that the heat from a glass converging sunrays into a spot may be the cause
  • The blaze is similar to the Grenfell Tower in London where the facade burned
  • The composition of the cladding panels is being investigated
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A Milanese building burst into flames on August 29 and recalled the tragedy in London in 2017. A week later, many questions remain and experts now study the possibility that a glass bottle may explain how the fire started.

The Milanese tower turned into a torch in few minutes
The Torre dei Moro in Milan completely burned and turned into a torch in few minutes | @Vigili del Fuoco

On the afternoon of August 29, a black smoke went out from an apartment on the 15th floor of the Torre dei Mori in Milan.

But the smoke was quickly followed by vivid flames. And the blaze propagated to upper floors, then moved downward until the building turned into a torch in less than 30 minutes. Surrounding vehicles were also destroyed.

All residents were able to evacuate safely thanks to emergency stairs, despite some malfunctions in the emergency systems. Several flats were also empty during this holiday season.

The 18-story luxury building was built in 2011 as part of a rehabilitation plan in the southern suburb of Milan, and hosted a mix of commercial activities and personal flats. Its name comes from Moro Costruzioni spa, a construction company of established real estate developers in the region.

The fire started at the 15th floor and then moved downward
The fire started at the 15th floor and then moved downward

The source of the blaze still unclear

A little more than a week after the building was burst into flames, the investigation has yet to find the explanation of the accident, and the reasons why the fire spread so quickly.

At first, an electrical shortcut was the hypothesis. It was then discarded as the resident of the flat where the fire started had cut electricity as he had left for his holidays.

Experts now consider a burning lens may have caused the fire, for instance with a glass bottle left on the balcony, which ultimately ignited combustion.

A burning lens works like the magnifying glass concentrating sun rays so that the heat eventually burns a leaf or a piece of paper.

A myth says Archimedes used mirrors redirecting sunlight onto ships attacking Syracuse to set them on fire.

Italian experts are now studying whether a simple transparent convex form, such as a glass bottle, converged sunrays so that it ended up ravaging the building.

The facade completely melted while the structure resisted
The facade completely melted while the structure resisted | @ Vigili del fuoco, Twitter

An accident similar to the Grenfell Tower fire in London

The way and the speed of which the construction burned also recalled the more tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, where 72 people died.

Milan mayor, Giuseppe Sala, quickly mentioned “it became clear from the beginning that the external cladding of the building went up in flames too quickly, in a dynamic that closely resembled the fire of London’s Grenfell Tower a few years ago“.

In London, the fire was sparked by a refrigerator but the coat material, highly inflammable polyethylene sandwiched between two aluminum skins, a thin chamber air working like a chimney, and non-fireproof insulation, caused the fast spread of the fire. The building burned from the outside rather than the inside.

For the Torre dei Moro, images clearly show the facade burned, some witnesses mentioned it was like it melted, whereas the structure resisted. And questions quickly showed up about the material used for the cladding, the most external skin of a building.

Firefighters found that the blaze burned highly inflammable plastic material, reached temperatures close to the aluminum fusion point..

The Grenfell Tower in London
The Grenfell Tower fire in London where 72 people died. The Torre dei Moro burned in a similar way, from the outside | @ Natalie Oxford

Several companies involved in the construction rejected the fault

But the exact composition of the panels remains obscure and has been hard to obtain. Gaetano Lisciandra, a respected architect of Milan who signed the project in 2006, died in 2016.

Augusto Bononi, the condominium administrator, first said the Torre dei Mori facade was clad with Alucobond, another aluminum sheet-based material.

However, 3A Composites, the manufacturer of Alucobond, stated the facade of Torre dei Moro was not clad with its registered trademark.

Saint Gobain Italia wanted to clear its responsibility by explaining it sold Isover glass wool panels to the construction company, classified as non-combustible and non-flammable, and was only used on the main structure of the building to thermically insulate it, but not on the external cladding installed for aesthetic purposes.

On September 4, the company Aghito Zambonini Spa stated that it bought the composite panels from a Spanish company, Alucoil. The panels “were fully compliant with the technical specifications of the project and the regulations in force in 2009 and were chosen and approved by the client“.

The Italian regulation of facades didn’t apply to Torre dei Moro

According to La Repubblica, documents of the investigation mention the use of Alucoil’s Larson PE for the building’s coat, which is made of aluminum and polyethylene, similar to what was on the Grenfell Tower in London.

In a document uploaded by Alucoil in November 2017, less than six months after the UK’s worst fire since WWII, it specifies that the use of Larson PE is “not recommended for high buildings because of limitations in country regulations“.

After the tragic events in London, countries in fact adapted their regulations to avoid similar situations.

Italy indeed adopted a law in 2019 to increase regulation in case of fire in condominiums, and more directives in regards to facade safety.

The Torre dei Moro was yet not concerned by the latter as the law only applies to renovations and new constructions.

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